Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Snorri the Hobbit?

A year after completing my biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings, I am rethinking his character. Snorri, I now see, was a hobbit.

Writing about Tolkien’s debt to Snorri at the end of my book, I discussed the Icelandic antecedants of the wizard Gandalf, the dwarves, elves and orcs, the dragon, the shapeshifter Beorn, warrior women, the riders of Rohan, the giant eagles, the trolls, the wargs, barrow-wights, magic swords, Mount Doom, and the cursed ring of power.

I may not have gone far enough.

I should have included hobbits on my list, argues Gloriana St. Clair in a paper I recently rediscovered: “Tolkien’s Cauldron: Northern Literature and The Lord of the Rings,” published online by University Libraries Research in 2000 (See (The rediscovery was thanks to the marvelous website

In her chapter four, “Creatures,” St. Clair counts “over 35 types of mortals, immortals, and monsters” in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. “Those that show some affinity with the Northern myths and folk traditions are 1) Hobbits, 2) Elves and Orcs, 3) Dwarves, 4) Wizards, 5) Tree-kin, 6) Birds, 7) Dragons, 8) Wargs, 9) The Eye, and 10) Ancients.”

None of the others surprised me, but hobbits? I think of them more as the quintessential English country folk. St. Clair has anticipated my objections.

She writes: “Perhaps one of the most unlikely comparisons possible is between the short, fat, meek hobbits and the tall, strong, daring Vikings”—a term she applies to characters from the Icelandic sagas. “Yet the two peoples do share some traits.”

Her list of traits is convincing—and strangely matches my description of the writer of the Edda, Heimskringla, and (most likely) Egil’s Saga, Tolkien’s muse Snorri Sturluson.

“One of the first things that Tolkien mentions about the hobbits is their fondness for visitors,” writes St. Clair. Snorri also loved visitors—he practically kept open house at his grand estate of Reykholt for poets and writers.

Among hobbits, says St. Clair, “Storytelling was held in particular demand. … Bilbo recollects stories told about Gandalf. … Sam refers sentimentally to the great stories without ends … [and] mentions Frodo’s probable fame in the storytelling of the Shire.” Storytelling was one of Snorri’s great loves too. He collected stories, he memorized stories, he made up stories, and, fortunately for us, he filled page after page of parchment with stories. Otherwise, as I have argued here earlier, we would know little or nothing about Norse mythology.

Hobbits liked to eat six meals a day, if they could get them, and they loved parties. So did Snorri. According to his nephew, who wrote part of Sturlunga Saga, Snorri gave elaborate feasts and was a cheerful host. Snorri himself writes often and at length about eating and drinking: In Heimskringla it seems that a nobleman’s major duty was to organize feasts.

“Hobbits and Vikings were vain about their dress,” says St. Clair. As was Snorri. In his history of the kings of Norway, Heimskringla, Snorri allows King Sigurd the Jerusalem-farer to declare that “a king must be tall, so as to be conspicuous in a crowd.” Scholars believe Snorri was writing about himself when he has King Eystein answer his brother, “It is no less important that a man is well-dressed, so as to be easily known on that account.”

Hobbits and Icelanders “both loved to reckon their ancestors,” St. Clair points out. Snorri’s interest in genealogy is clear in everything he wrote.

Concludes St. Clair, “Even the fear Bilbo shows when he begins to sense the nature of his unrequested journey is not unknown in the sagas. The coward who must be converted to bravery is almost a conventional character.” In the only portrayal we have of Snorri himself, the one written by his nephew, the saga-writer comes off as a very Bilbo-esque coward. Unfortunately, he never “converted to bravery,” though he wrote eloquently about it. He did not live up to his Viking ideals, to the heroes portrayed in his books. He did not die with a laugh—or a poem—on his lips. His last words were “Don’t strike!” As the poet Jorge Luis Borges sums him up in a beautiful poem, the writer who “bequeathed a mythology / Of ice and fire” and “violent glory” to us was a coward: “On / Your head, your sickly face, falls the sword, / As it fell so often in your book.”

As I describe him in Song of the Vikings, Snorri was “one of the richest men in Iceland, holder of seven chieftaincies, owner of five profitable estates and a harbor, husband of an heiress, lover of several mistresses, a fat man soon to go gouty, a hard drinker, a seeker of ease prone to soaking long hours in his hot-tub while sipping stout ale, not a Viking warrior by any stretch of the imagination, but clever. Crafty, cunning, and ambitious. A good businessman. So well-versed in the law that few other Icelanders could out-argue him. A respectable poet and a lover of books.”

Think of Bilbo Baggins with a sex life, a lot of lawyerly cunning, and a lack of moral fiber. Perhaps a Sackville-Baggins?

Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.


  1. Or maybe Snorri had really hairy feet.

  2. Surely his nephew would have mentioned that.

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